Overcoming sugary stress eating: Understanding your stressors

It’s those days when you’re already overwhelmed with the tasks on your to do list, and someone else requests something at the same time and there just doesn’t feel enough hours in the day.

It’s those days when you feel some tension with someone who’s a key relationship in your life and despite having a ton or other things to think about, you’re going over your anger, frustration or upset with them in your head.

It’s those days when things don’t go to plan – the road on the usual route has a diversion and you’re going to be late which is going to make things difficult and send the rest of your day into chaos.

And what happens? You reach for the sugar.

You barely think about it.

It’s your survival coping mechanism of choice.

Easy, quick, cheap and it tastes goood!

The thing is, this isn’t about the sugar, it’s about the stress management, coping mechanism habits and your emotional processing.

To really change patterns of behaviour here, we need to go a little deeper.


Stress 101 here we come..

Let’s start with what stress actually is….

Stress comes from stressors. Stressors can be a demand on you or a threat or a change.

It doesn’t always have to be negative. Getting married, having a baby or moving house can be a stressor as much as an illness, job loss etc. is.

When I packed up my London in October to move abroad permanently, I was excited about this huge life change. I planned to go home for two weeks, enjoy myself at a wedding in Italy, pack up my flat and then move back to Asia.

However when I got to Italy, my skin erupted in small spots under the skin – the worst it’s been since I had acne as a teenager. I didn’t feel in that moment ‘stressed’ because I was on holiday, but what I can see now that I couldn’t back then was how the life event was such a stressor for me.

It took 8 tormenting weeks for my skin to return to normal. I tried going easy on diary, tried natural skin care (coconut oil as a cleanser?!), had dermabrasion but none of it worked.

In the end, it was only when I felt settled and fully transitioned into my new life that my skin settled again so I concluded it was that wider life event.


Look the photographer even caught me  putting on make-up in between processco! I would like to declare my love for foundation and powder at this point 🙂

Being aware of your stressors

Take note of the fact your stressors can be big life events like that or they can be smaller day to day things like getting a difficult e-mail, a traffic jam or a confrontational conversation.


Usually they can come in under the following categories:

  • Major life changes
  • Work or school
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Being too buy
  • Children & family

It’s also worth mentioning that different individuals are more prone to some stressors than others.

Road rage doesn’t bother me, yet it can drive another crazy. However, I know feeling overwhelmed with tasks and confused where to start is a strong stressor that used to push me towards sugar (& sometimes still pushes me towards a less sweet food alternative).

External vs. Internal stressors

In addition to the external stressors, you’ve also got your internal stressors – the ones that you self-generate through your own thoughts (oh joy!).

An especially common internal stressor that you may relate to is the feeling of guilt, judgement and shame after eating sugar. This can then often make people eat more sugar and it’s easy to see how a vicious stress induced circle can start.

Internal stressors exist within the following categories:

  • Chronic worry
  • Pessimmism
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations/perfectionism
  • Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
  • All or nothing attitude

So what to do?

Step 1: Start by picking out your top 3-5 most prominent stressors amongst those categories. The ones that are repeating or ongoing, that you know surface more regularly.

Step 2:  Be honest just how much of the time you use sugar for each of these. If for any of them, you are aware you use sugar (or any food) more than 50% of the time, it’s worth paying some attention here first.

Step 3:  A an immediate strategy, start to experiment with some interventions and things you can do that make you feel better instead of the sugar. I tend to categorise the options here in four categories:

  • Relax
  • Have more fun
  • Get active
  • Get perspective

Can you try a meditation app for overwhelm or watch a silly You Tube video as a work break? Maybe a spontaneous dance or talking to a friend to get a different perspective can help.

Step 4: Dive deeper to understand the emotions that are going on surrounding the stressors.

This is harder and takes time, hence you’ll need to prioritise as you can’t do it for everything straight away.

You can actually be grateful for emotional eating where it’s telling you something valuable and worthy about your emotions and current situation. If there’s one category that really stands out, it could be worth working through this more introspectively with a trusted individual or a pretty journal. 

There’s more to this but this is a start

I realise trying to help you with emotional eating is a bigger task at hand than just with one article but this will give you a starter and some food for thought.

If you take one thing away from this, just let it be a more pronounced awareness of your unique stressors and what categories they fall into.

…oh and that that teenage acne breakouts can happen even when you eat less sugar because life change stressors are potentially always on the cards.

Any categories you can recognise your stressors being strong in? Do you feel you’re defaulting to sugar in any for more than 50%?


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